Short Story: Fea's Tenses

I've written this story for a big-deal writing contest, and I want to get some feedback before I send it off. (That's allowed by the contest, don't worry.) The story is long, but if you have fifteen minutes and would be willing to look it over, please let me know what you think in the comments section below before I send it off. Thanks!

[Update 3/30/12: Thanks to all the folks who've given me feedback, here in the comments, on Facebook, and by email, I've made some significant changes to the story. I want to especially thank Megan Geigner, a PhD candidate at Northwestern (bio here), and Wendy Hart Beckman, owner/president of Beckman Communications, a professional writing service. Both of these friends went above and beyond the call of duty, and I am so grateful for their honesty and thoroughness. I hope they're pleased with the changes. I still have time to make more, so keep those suggestions coming!]

[Update 3/17/13: Though the story didn't win that contest a year ago, I've continued to polish it and get feedback from even more friends and students. The story is now available on Kindle, so I have to remove it from this blog, but if you're so inclined, you can still get a copy (less than a buck!) here:

 
 
http://amzn.to/WthJ3m

 Again, thanks to you all!

Why I Was Accused of Teacher Malpractice

I had a very jarring experience this week. After a lesson in my creative writing class on Wednesday that was not significantly different from one I've given dozens of times before, two students confronted me after class and accused me of a professional ethics violation, specifically of using my position as a teacher to share my political views. When pressed, they conceded that the views were not actually necessarily mine, and may have been balanced, but that the lesson involved politics and was therefore inappropriate. That's simply a misunderstanding of the nature of the violation they'd originally accused me of, but that didn't stop me from freaking out. I could imagine angry parents confronting me, or worse, going over my head and blind-siding my principal or superintendent with allegations of professional misconduct which could have severe repercussions. Outside of my classroom and the contract day I am quite politically active (as anyone who has read this blog before can infer), so I could imagine that someone, not knowing the lengths I go to in order to keep my views out of the classroom, might believe that I crossed that barrier I work so hard to maintain. I immediately shot off an email to my principal, both to document the incident and to warn her in case she was confronted by parents. Then I spent the evening allowing myself to get more and more worried about the situation. By midnight, it seemed sleep would be impossible, so I came downstairs and drafted a letter to my students explaining the situation. I still couldn't fall asleep until after 3:00 am. The next day, Thursday, I brought the letter to my principal and spoke with her about the situation. She was very supportive and encouraging, which made me feel a lot better. She read the letter, encouraged me to tone it down a notch, and advised me to send a kind of permission slip about the lesson home to parents next year in advance (good advice which I will follow). I read an abbreviated version of the letter to the students, and it seems the incident has blown over, though I can't be sure it won't explode at some point in the future. I wanted to share the letter here so other teachers, parents, friends, etc., could understand both my rebuttal and why I was so panicked. I apologize in advance for the length, but, as you can imagine, I had a lot to get off my chest.

"Well, my dear creative writing students, it’s 12:17 in the morning and I can’t sleep. Today (technically yesterday) I made an error in judgment and I want to apologize and explain something. So (cue trumpets), with much fanfare, please accept…

An Apology and Explanation

Yesterday, before beginning the reading of the 3rd chapter of the novel I’m writing, I meant to remember to say, albeit briefly, that there would be some references to things that are political in the text, but that the character’s views were not my own, and that if the prospect of hearing about anything political made anyone uncomfortable, they could be excused from the assignment. Once I’d passed out the copies I simply forgot.

After class, some of your classmates came to me, concerned that I was trying to share my own political beliefs. I must immediately say that I firmly prohibit any kind of witch-hunt to try to figure out who these students were. I appreciated their honesty and I think their concern is valid. Please allow me to try to explain why I also believe it is misplaced in this instance.

First of all, there’s a general misconception that teachers can’t talk about anything political. This is, on its face, not only incorrect but impossible. We couldn’t do our jobs if we avoided any topic which relates to politics. Every novel we teach is political. All the history we teach inevitably has political bias. In fact, in recent history even science has been politicized. One could argue that everything you read in school is biased toward English-speakers by virtue of being written in English, or biased toward Americans because of the way words like “color” and “theater” are spelled. The complete absence of bias is a myth, and fleeing from politics is not our job. However, we have an ethical obligation to avoid using our positions as your teachers to try to inculcate you into our own political beliefs. I take this very seriously. I do not tell students how I vote or how they should feel about specific issues, and I encourage all of you to let me know if you believe I’ve been intentionally or accidentally biased in my presentation of any information.

That being said, the explanation given by the novel’s character for the fall of our civilization could be easily misconstrued to reflect my beliefs. I can only ask you to trust me when I say his politics do not mirror my own. I understand that skeptical students would wonder why they should believe that and not feel they were being doubly deceived. If you’ll allow me, let me provide one uncontroversial piece of evidence. The character in the story expresses a fatalism about the fall of our civilization. Of course, he is speaking from a different, fictional setting in which this has already occurred. I think I can safely share that I do not believe this to be any kind of inevitability, or that the fictional story is some kind of prophecy. I am a teacher. This is an inherently hopeful profession. I would not do this job if I believed that we are all doomed. If you can accept that I differ from the character in this way, I hope you will also believe me when I say that we differ in other beliefs as well. I cannot, however, itemize all the ways I agree and disagree with the character because, to do so, I would have to expound on my own politics, which would be inappropriate.

So why, you might ask, if the assignment creates a situation wherein students can only trust that their teacher isn’t preaching his own politics, would I continue to offer up the assignment? I believe its value exceeds the risk. As developing writers, there is a value to the practice of editing and revision that can only come with repetition. You will be editing and revising one another’s work. I feel it’s important to lay the groundwork for that by modeling the proper way to receive feedback. On a deeper level, I think it’s essential for students to see that I, too, am involved in the practice of writing. Across this country there are hosts of English teachers asking students to write while not participating in the endeavor themselves. Maybe it’s not a hobby they enjoy. Maybe their work demands so much time they simply cannot fit it into their schedules. I shouldn’t judge them. But I know that, as a student, I would question the authority of any writing instructor who didn’t write, just as I would question a literature instructor who didn’t read literature or a P.E. teacher who refused to exercise.

But, you might ask, couldn’t I have chosen to tell a story that was clearly apolitical? I would argue, quite simply, no, I couldn’t. I could have told a story set in a fantasy world completely dissimilar to our own with characters barely resembling human beings, or perhaps with anthropomorphized animals, and the politics within the story might have been a lot more subtle. That subtlety might have protected me from any accusations of impropriety. But I would argue that is actually a far more dangerous situation. As with advertising or any other form of manipulation, it’s when we are least suspecting of bias or ulterior motive that we are most susceptible. For the reasons mentioned above, I chose to share the book I really am writing. But I also went out of my way to try to make sure that the politics were as even-handed as I could make them and still explain the extreme setting of the story. Hence the explanation that both sides’ worst fear came true simultaneously. Frankly, if this book were ever to be published with my name on it, I might edit that portion to more accurately reflect my politics, but I felt that would be inappropriate for a classroom. It’s true that balance isn’t the same thing as a lack of bias, but I’d again ask you to believe me when I say I chose balance to try to present a believable dystopia without injecting the class with my own politics.

So, if I made any of you uncomfortable yesterday, I apologize for not giving you an out in advance. That was my oversight. And now for the announcement part (trumpets again, please): In our following unit we were going to begin a careful examination of some literature written by some writers who are far more talented than I could ever hope to be (well, I can hope, I guess. Teacher, remember). We’re now going to move that assignment up. This will not mean any extra work for anyone. It just shifts our schedule around a bit. The reason I’m doing this is that I plan on continuing to share from the novel I’m writing, as long as the majority of you are still interested in reading it. Those of you who are not comfortable reading my writing may choose to do the same assignment, providing detailed feedback chapter by chapter, to the works of established authors from the books I’ve chosen. If you want to escape all writers’ politics, I’m afraid you’re out of luck in a creative writing class. If you don’t feel comfortable hearing a story from your teacher because of his immediate presence in the room and necessarily conflicting roles as writer and teacher, I can only hope that I am modeling accepting that feedback by not demanding that you continue to read my work, and by modeling not being offended by that choice in the slightest.

One last note: The reason it is unethical for public school teachers to share their personal political views is not because we are paid with taxpayer money. If any of you attend a public university next year you will hear lectures from professors who are also paid with public funds and who do not shy away from sharing their personal views. The reason it is unethical for teacher like me to do that is because young minds are more malleable and more likely to be swayed by authority figures. So let me say something that I don’t believe is controversial at all: You cannot hide from politics any more than you can hide from questions of religion or identity or tastes in food or people’s opinions about next week’s weather. Your best and only defense is in greeting all opinions with a healthy dose of skepticism. Whether those opinions come from your teachers or your friends or your television, I encourage you to listen or read very carefully the opinions of anyone, alive or dead, authority figure or peer, and then decide for yourselves. I admit that the notion that you should think for yourselves is my personal political belief, but I refuse to accept that this belief is too controversial, because if it is, then I’m afraid all education is impossible.

Okay, now it’s 1:31 in the morning and I will be seeing you all painfully soon. Please accept my apology for the oversight and let me know privately if you would prefer the alternate assignment."

I hope this will put an end to the whole affair. Ultimately (and ironically), I expect that will be determined by workplace, local, family, and parental politics.

Killing the Pain of Rejection: A Writer’s Failed Experiment

Today I shot my rejection letters. It didn’t make me feel better.

Sharing this story may be a mistake. It’s very bad form to whine about rejection letters. For one thing, it is whining, and that’s bad enough. No one likes whiners. But it’s even worse when it seems that a writer is slagging on an agent, so let me be very up-front about this: I am not angry with the two agents who rejected my most recent novel this week.

I have a great deal of respect for literary agents. This isn’t some form of brown-nosing because I want one of them to accept my work. I respect them because I understand what they do. Even this knowledge has been gleaned thanks to the generosity of agents; I’ve never been an agent nor do I know any personally beyond a few evenings’ conversation, but some agents keep great blogs about their work, and these give insights into why agents do what they do. First of all, agents love books, love writers, and love connecting writers with readers. They’re our advocates. They’re on our side. The trick is getting a generic someone who is generally on the side of writers to become a very specific someone who is advocating for you, personally. That’s arduous, to say the least. But I believe it’s worthwhile, and not just because of the dollars and cents (though I’ll be the first to argue that taking 15% off of something is better than keeping 100% of nothing). But agents also make our work better, and not just once we’ve acquired one. Trying to please these gatekeepers forces us to ask important questions as we write. “Who will the agent sell this to?” forces us to think about audience. “Will this grab an agent on page 1?” forces us to write a first page that will also hold a reader. “Can I pitch this to an agent in under thirty seconds?” forces us to think about theme and character in a way that can increase the coherence of a novel. Agents serve us before they ever hear from us.

And then, when they do hear from us, they try to do right by us. If they love our work and believe they can sell it, “doing right” involves signing us, helping us edit the manuscript again, and pitching it to publishers. But when they have to reject us (and they do), they really are concerned about our feelings. I’ve never met or read about an agent who took that duty lightly.

So why do rejection letters seem so curt and even callous? There are a few good reasons, none of which make a lie of the agents’ concern for the writers they deal with. First of all, if agents wrote lengthy, detailed rejection letters, they’d be wasting the time they owe to the writers they’ve already signed. An agent who writes you a five page rejection letter is an agent you wouldn’t want signing you, because she would then spend her time writing five page rejection letters to everybody else in her slush pile instead of selling your work. Besides the time management issue, agents don’t write long letters because they are making a clean break with you. Think of that horrible ex-boyfriend your friend was dating. Instead of breaking off the relationship, he acted like a jerk until she finally did it. He was a coward, and it hurt her more than if he’d come clean when he didn’t want to be in the relationship. Agents don’t want to send the false impression that they might say yes if you tweak this or that part of the manuscript. When they write “It isn’t right for me,” by “it” they mean the whole thing. That doesn’t mean they hate you or that the book is garbage. They mean they can’t enter into a relationship with that book, even if it stops leaving the toilet seat up or does the dishes more often.

I was lucky. I’d met both of the agents who rejected me at last week’s Willamette Writers Conference. They were kind and encouraging in person and followed up with supportive letters that were much longer than necessary. I would have understood if they’d sent me a one line reply, but one of them gave me two paragraphs. Both of them are on my short-list for future novels if this one doesn’t pan out. I sent them short thank you notes in which I said I was genuinely grateful for their time and consideration, and guess what? I was being genuinely genuine.

And there’s the rub. Rejection hurts. Some writers hide from that pain by blaming the agent. “She didn’t recognize my genius!” they seem to say. Bull. First of all, appreciation for any given novel is subjective. What one person my find brilliant, another may find tiresome or confusing or in need of major revision. That’s not the agent’s fault. Criticizing her for that is like saying she has the wrong favorite color. Also, agents are working, not just reading for pleasure. Maybe she enjoyed your book but didn’t think any publisher would buy it. More specifically, maybe she didn’t think any editor would buy it from her, in which case she’s done you a favor by directing you to find someone who thinks she can sell it.

Some writers blame the whole industry. I think this inclines some people to look to e-publishing, indie-publishing, or vanity publishing (not the same things, mind you). That decision should be based on other factors, like platform and audience, rather than on a knee-jerk reaction to rejection. The great thing about the self-publishing world is that there are no gatekeepers. Consequently, some readers who wouldn’t have been served by the traditional market are being connected with some writers who would have been barred by that system. But those readers have to wade through a sea of mediocrity and worse to get there, and that sea just gets more polluted when writers who fear rejection throw their muck into it without concern for who their audience might be and why the traditional publishing industry isn’t snapping them up.

Some writers turn that rejection inward. “She’s saying I’m a worthless human being.” Again, writing is subjective. Plus, she’s not saying anything at all about you. She’s saying something about your manuscript. It’s not personal. Of course it feels personal to us, because we poured our soul into that book, but, at this stage, it’s important to remember that we’re more than one novel. Faced with the choice between blaming the agent and blaming myself, I think it’s healthier and more honest to take responsibility, as long as it motivates me to write a better book next time, but not if it makes me want to reach for the bottle of vodka in the back of the cupboard.

But the pain is still there. I can’t let it consume me, and I can’t direct it at the agent who sent me the letter. So what am I to do with this feeling?

I had an idea. I decided to try to externalize it and attack the feeling directly. I printed out the rejection letters, then added a digital “REJECTED” stamp and crosshairs. They looked like this:


Even before I shot at them, I suspected it wouldn’t work. For one thing, I don’t go target shooting out of anger. I’ve only recently become a gun-owner, and I bought them for a number of reasons. First and foremost, I want to be prepared should I ever need them to feed or protect my family. Second, firearms are an interesting subject to learn about, and I’m only now realizing how completely ignorant I’ve been regarding this vast area of study I’ve completely neglected. Third, I’d like to come across as at least somewhat believable when I write about people using guns in my fiction. Finally, I admit, it’s a lot of fun. None of these reasons inclines me toward any kind of hostility involving firearms. They were the wrong tool for my purposes. I’d brought a gun to a feeling fight.

But I tried. I shot the ever-loving s--- out of those rejection letters.


As I’d expected, the exercise did little for my emotional well-being. It got a few chuckles out of some friends and family when I explained my plans. But once I was shooting, the pleasure of the experience came from trying to hit the target. I completely forgot about the abstract emotional goal. I could have been doing any other fun, competitive task. I might as well have been practicing my free throws or trying to learn a musical instrument. It had no effect on my feelings about rejection in general, or the specific disappointment those letters produced.

That shouldn’t surprise me. I’m sure there are more emotionally evolved people who can export specific feelings, physicalize them, and confront them. They’re probably mostly Buddhists, and they are unlikely to project those emotional constructs into paper targets and shoot at them.

I’m not a Buddhist. I’m just a writer. I shape feelings into letters and words and sentences. Then I hope that someone is willing to read those sentences. A reader’s empathy provides the comfort that small, singed holes in paper never can.

That’s the moral of the story: To confront rejection, put the gun away and get back to work.

"Writers Create Worlds" Poster

Inspired by an excellent speech by author Chris Humphreys, which included a delivery of one of Theseus' monologues from A Midsummer Night's Dream, I thought I'd make a poster for my classroom. Teachers (and writers), let me know what you think and feel free to steal the image if you'd like it.